(CNET) -- With its T series, Sony has an unfortunate habit of taking at least one step back for every two steps forward.
In early 2007, it released the Cyber-shot DSC-T100, a great little camera with fast performance, a broad feature set, and solid photo quality. A few months later, Sony shipped the T200--also fast with even more features, but photos that simply didn't look as good as the T100's.
Now Sony presents the Cyber-shot DSC-T300. The T300 is fast, includes even more features than the T200, and ups the resolution from 8 to 10 megapixels. Unfortunately, its photos look even worse than the T200's.
At a casual glance, the T300 looks almost identical to its predecessor. At just 7/8-inch thick and weighing 6.1 ounces with battery and Memory Stick Duo, it's slightly thinner and lighter than the T200. Underneath its stylish, slim body and signature sliding lens cover, though, the T300 received some important tweaks for the T200's faults.
Besides its stylish sliding lens cover (a signature feature on all Cyber-shot T-series cameras), the T300's display stands out as its most notable feature. You control almost every aspect of the camera via a 3.5-inch touch-screen LCD, leaving just a power button, a playback button, a shutter release, and a zoom rocker as its only physical controls.
The screen dominates the entire back panel of the camera, barely leaving half a centimeter around it for the bezel. On the bright side, this huge screen gives you a large, bright view of your pictures and the menus.
On the other hand, it leaves almost no room for your thumb to rest while shooting. A large, sturdy lanyard mount on the right side of the camera offers some space, but big thumbs will still tend to brush against the touch screen.
Even if you can shoot without accidentally tapping the screen, you're still going to have to delve into the camera's menu system at some point. The menus aren't just irritating; they're downright neurotic and take far too long to navigate, requiring constant reassurance with countless taps of "OK." Change the resolution, hit "OK." Change the white balance, hit "OK." Enter the camera settings menu by hitting "OK," then confirm each setting by hitting "OK" again.
As Sony's highest-end point-and-shoot, the T300 includes all the latest features. It sports an optically stabilized f/3.5-4.4 33mm-to-165mm-equivalent 5x zoom lens that delivers a surprisingly long reach for a slim camera. Unfortunately, that reach comes at the cost of wide angle and speed; a 28mm, f/2.8 lens would have been preferable, even if it didn't offer a 5x zoom. The T300 also features several face-detection shooting modes, including Adult and Child Priority, which let the camera identify kids' or adults' faces in group photos and adjust focus and exposure accordingly, and Smile Shutter, which delays shooting until the subject smiles.
A suite of onboard photo-editing and retouching tools take full advantage of the huge touch panel and included lanyard-tethered stylus. A rudimentary paint program lets you draw on your pictures, and cropping and resizing tools can trim them to fit 16:9 wide-screen displays, scale down to VGA (640x480) for e-mailing, or simply crop out bits you don't want to keep.
A variety of effects offer even more options, including digital red-eye removal, radial blur, soft focus, and fisheye lens tools that can focus on a single spot in a picture with a tap of the stylus. Finally, the T300 includes a Happy Faces feature that automatically turns frowns upside-down. When you take a portrait and the subject doesn't smile, Happy Faces distorts the subject's mouth to give them a smile.
The end results range from surprisingly realistic to Jokeresque. All of the T300's editing tools automatically create copies of pictures you edit; the original shot is preserved, while changes are saved to new files.
After you edit your pictures, you can use the T300's various slide-show and sorting features to organize and share them with your friends. You can use the touch screen to sort pictures into different folders, and even tag your favorite shots so you can view them separately.
A built-in slide-show mode displays your photos with a customizable MP3 soundtrack and a variety of slide transition effects. The camera comes with a composite video cable for displaying pictures on a television, though HDTV owners should consider the optional component video cable if they want to fully take advantage of the feature.
Once you get past the awkward menus and copious options, the camera performs quite fast. In CNET Labs' tests, the T300 snapped its first shot 1.9 seconds after powering on, and took another picture every 1.7 seconds thereafter. With the onboard flash enabled, that wait increased to 2.2 seconds. The shutter felt responsive, lagging just a hair under half a second in our high-contrast environment and a full second in our low-contrast lighting. In burst mode, the camera delivered a respectable 1.9 frames per second.
Quick performance and dozens of features are great, but in the end cameras have to be judged on the pictures they take. Unfortunately, we found the T300 seriously lacking in that respect. Even at its best, photos generally look soft, with haloing along edges.
At its lowest sensitivity, ISO 80, we still see noise in flat colors, like gray. It becomes noticeable across the board at ISO 200, and by ISO 400 starts degrading detail. At ISO 3,200 photos look like they were painted with a worn-out kitchen sponge. Finally, the camera's lens produced conspicuous vignetting--darkening the corners of shots--at its widest, and displayed distortion at both the wide and telephoto ends of the range.While the Cyber-shot DSC-T300 offers a great design, loads of features, and fast performance, its pictures simply don't look match up to its predecessors or to competitors such as the Canon PowerShot SD950 IS. If you can pick up the T200 or T100 however, seriously consider either of them instead of this latest model.